Tips for Non-Native Speakers

New country - new kind of seminar paper

published: 09.10.2008

In different countries different rules apply to the academic work of students (Foto: Public Address)In different countries different rules apply to the academic work of students (Foto: Public Address)

Anyone who, as a non-native speaker at a German university, wishes to compile a thesis, is immediately faced with several challenges. Not only does a demanding topic have to be formulated in a foreign language, but also one has to have an insight into typical German working methods and the everyday chaos of a university campus. The Techniker Krankenkasse has made some enquiries into the university scene and has gathered some tips.

Step 1: See through your university
Serge Nadtotschi is in his second term of the Master programme "Entrepreneurship" in the Department for Economy and Politics at the University of Hamburg. The Ukrainian remembers his first thesis well. "I was registered with two courses in order to learn how scientific papers are written here", he says. "There was no contact person to ask."

Serge Nadtotschi had to get used to the German method of working first of all (Foto: Public Address)Serge Nadtotschi had to get used to the German method of working first of all (Foto: Public Address)

Unfortunately, there are no uniform contact points throughout the country that look after non-native speakers with such specific problems as compiling a thesis. Instead different structures prevail at every university or polytechnic that cannot be clearly recognised. In order to gain insight, it is best to first of all contact the existing help organisations such as the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the "Studentenwerk", the central course guidance point at your university or the "Ausländer-Referat" (Foreign Students’ Council) of the General Students’ Council. Feel completely free to visit all contact points, even if not every office can help you. Do not hesitate to pester the people at the desks.

Some universities, for example the Uni Hamburg, offer so-called service points. There scientific assistants, lecturers or professors look after the students of one specialised faculty and also discuss problems with them that they stumble across in connection with examinations or achievement certificates. Other universities, for example in Erfurt, allocate an academic mentor to each of their students. At the University of Osnabrück a pilot project is to be launched soon in which a local student is responsible for the well-being of a foreign fellow student.

Once the preliminary version is ready, read it through again critically (Foto: Public Address)Once the preliminary version is ready, read it through again critically (Foto: Public Address)

Step 2: Get personal advice
Anyone who is not allocated a contact person from the very beginning should pluck up courage and approach his fellow students. Whether during a seminar, during university sports, in the canteen or within the framework of regular meetings, groups and info-cafés, the "old hands" usually know best about the structures of their university. Don’t miss an opportunity to tap such valuable sources of information.

From his own experience, Serge recommends that one should also definitely refer to other foreign students. "That works best because they feel associated with one another and exchange advice", he says. Finally, it is also customary to approach the tutoring staff or students’ representative bodies or even fraternities. Write an email to your professor, ask a lecturer after the seminar or phone up his or her office in order to solve problems without delay.

Step 3: Fathom out German peculiarities
Serge is also familiar with one of the typical problems of foreign students: the different kind of work expected locally. "In the Ukraine we also write large theses, but there we worked quite differently. The set-up was different to the one in Germany, not with introduction, theoretical and practical part and conclusion." So before you start on a thesis for the first time, you would familiarise yourself with the theory of the academic work in Germany. Special courses inform about which steps to take before and during a thesis, which sources to use and also which the most common expressions are. It is advisable to start up a "vocabulary book" in such a seminar in which you can collect the necessary expressions that you will be using repeatedly in your seminar work.


The Regensburg certified psychologist, Astrid Utler, confirms that, as far as grades are concerned, it is worthwhile taking time to study the local work method. "I often notice when correcting that I am more drawn towards works of students who have a similar cultural background to myself. Without any intention this makes itself noticeable in the grades I give." Utler is a trainer and lecturer for intercultural affairs at the Institute for Cooperation Management and give courses at institutes of education and German universities with international students. "In order to get a preliminary idea of the local methods, it is helpful to read a thesis compiled by a German student", Utler recommends. Basically, well-founded literature research should be carried out in the library. According to her experience, foreign students often tend to restrict themselves to sources in the Internet. "That is not necessarily the academic approach that I envisage".

Step 4: Find the best course
After all, the lecturer or professor in question to whom you have to submit your work, plays a decisive role. "There are no fixed rules for the assessment of foreign students", explains Iren Schulz, academic assistant in the Seminar for Media and Communication Sciences at the University of Erfurt. Whether the particular difficulties of foreign students are reflected in their grades, depends on the lecturer him/herself. Also Utler confirms "a certain room for play in the assessment". At the universities at which she has corrected so far, this too had mostly been impressed on her.

Where to get help

University bodies: German Academic Exchange Service, students union, "Studentenwerk", academic counceling, international office, Foreign Students’ Council of the General Students’ Council

People to ask: Fellow students, tandem partners, tutors, academic mentors, professors, lecturers, academic assistants

Events: Freshers' week, info cafés, regular meetings, language courses, special courses about academic work

Services: Professional proofreading services

Ask your fellow students and the lecturers personally beforehand what support you can expect in compiling your work. Regular consultation hours in which you can clarify your factual problems are just as important as the question as to what extent your cultural background influences the grade. You may possibly even be allowed to compile parts of your work in English. Usually it is worth while joining smaller courses as the professor or the lecturer then tends to have more time to attend to the individual requirements of the students.

Step 5: Let yourself be corrected
Once the work is completed, there is a final and important task to carry out: the proofreading. You will need your German dictionary, reference books on figures of speech, your "vocabulary book" and the literature used. If it is a particularly important piece of work, it is worth while using a proofreading service. Former German Studies students often offer these services for payment. "It costs approximately three Euro per page", says Serge about the prices in Hamburg. He advocates, however, that you should enquire beforehand with fellow students who have already had some experience with specialised providers. "Because some just make a few corrections, whereas others even give valuable tips about the content".

Furthermore, you should definitely ask your German-speaking fellow students for assistence. After all, not only do they have a full command of the language, but they are also on the same course as you. As a result they are most familiar with the contents of your thesis and know what the requirements are. Even if this last step is unpleasant for you, you should still take the plunge. Because with this not only do you demonstrate courage and frankness in approaching strangers, but you may possibly get a chance of making new contacts and therefore get to know the local culture better.

There is bound to be something from which your German fellow students can benefit in return. Tandem programmes are also based on this philosophy of reciprocal enrichment in which you can offer your own language skills "in return for services rendered". In case you are from a lesser-known language area, you are welcome to adapt this model slightly. In this case you can prepare a traditional dish from home for your tandem partner or give him oder her some useful traveling tips – after all every culture has a great deal to offer.

[Franzisca Teske]

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